Currently in Chiang Mai, Thailand (06/12/2013) - 31200km cycled

9 Mar 2013

Turkmenistan – A three day challenge

Posted by Will

A tourist visa for Turkmenistan is hard to come by so most travellers opt for a transit visa.  The transit visa usually allows 5 days travel across the country to get from Iran to Uzbekistan – about 500km.  Bike travel blogs across the internet warn of awful roads, fearsome headwinds and a guaranteed flight back home – deported at your own expense – for any overstaying.  It’s a big hurdle for long-distance cyclists and one I have thought about over and over.

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I submitted my paperwork, waited patiently for three weeks, and was finally informed I should present myself at the Turkmen consulate in the Iranian city Mashhad.  Full of optimism, I arrived at the consulate with the assumption that everything had gone to plan.  I couldn’t believe it when I found out I had only been granted a three day visa.  Absolutely no reason was given and arguing with the paper-pusher through the miniscule glass window was clearly futile.  I slunk away from the consulate knowing a giant crack had just appeared in my unbroken line of cycling.

I wouldn’t even have three days.  I wouldn’t get into the country until at least 10am on the first day and the border closed the other end at 6pm on the third day.  The challenge stared me in the face relentlessly and for the first time since cycling I became very nervous.  I pedalled slowly to the border and then settled down for three nights at the Red Crescent to get myself prepared.  Bike fixed, body fed, brain psyched, I got ready to go.  And then a crucial development.

I had emailed a guy called Kaleb, another British cyclist, a few times while in Iran because it seemed like we’d be crossing Central Asia at around the same time.  He’d never appeared in Mashhad so I assumed his visas were slightly behind mine.  But appear at the border he did, with perfect timing, the afternoon before my challenge began.  He had a 5 day transit visa.  But we could enter Turkmenistan together and he said he was up for the challenge too.

Day 1

We arrived at the Iranian border control at 8am when it opened.  Or when it was supposed to open because when we got there everyone was still sleeping.  No one manned the passport stamp, the customs desk or the road barriers.  At 9, nothing had moved forward and although all common sense told me to stay calm I started to get agitated.  At 9.30, our passports were checked and we were asked to unpack a bag each for inspection.  Once they established we were carrying no weapons, narcotics or antiques our passports were taken and we were asked to wait.  At 10, we were still waiting.  The thought crossed both our minds: could they be going over our activity in Iran?  We both had our fair share of misdemeanours.  At 10.30, we were finally allowed to cross over the rickety metal bridge dividing Iran and Turkmenistan.  We sped towards the Turkmen border control rearing to go.

We needn’t have rushed because the Turkmenistan officials had just started their lunch break.  The time difference between Iran and Turkmenistan is +90 minutes so I lost another chunk of cycling time.  At 1pm, the Turkmen process started. Officials demanded our passports (mainly just to look at the design) and truckers crowded the desk shouting for attention.  We’d also chosen the day they were redecorating the border post.  With paintdrops raining down over our heads, we unloaded our bikes, placed everything on an airport-style X-Ray scanner, passed that test, loaded our bikes back up, filled out forms declaring our currency and valuables and finally headed out onto the road.  Time: 2pm.  Time left: 52 hours.

The first sign in Turkmenistan is an enormous picture of their beloved ex-leader in a purple camo-suit.  His portrait is ubiquitous in Turkmenistan: it hangs in stores, restaurants, schools, hospitals and even over road signs.  His statue stands in town squares across the country, his book is compulsary reading for children and smoking on the street is forbidden because he was once addicted and tried to give up.

Kaleb and I ground down the kilometers on the heavily potholed road with the wind blowing marginally in our direction.  We played games to pass the time: say the name of a band and then try to think of a song starting with the letter the band name ends in.  If you’re successful, the other person has to sing the song.  That was my favourite game.  We chatted and joked sarcastically.  Sarcasm is high on the list of things I miss while travelling.  Sometimes the road would turn into a series of unavoidable crators; sometimes it was snooker-table smooth and we’d wonder why anyone ever complained.

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One hundred kilometers later darkness fell and we took a right turn onto the main road to Uzbekistan.  In a yurt, we took a meal of fish, potatoes, fatty soup and bread.  That was the first village we had seen all day.  I also drank my first beer in over 3 months.  Then back onto the bicycle for 80km of night riding on possibly the worst stretch of road of my trip.

I almost fell several times as I desperately tried to navigate through the night. My dim headtorch barely illuminated five metres in front of me which even at a modest pace gives little room for last-second manoevre.  Every now and again a truck would pass and light up the true state of the road: a patchwork of potholes and awful repairs.  A new, asphalted but unfinished road presented itself for the last 30km which would have been perfect had it not been for enormous barricades of sand and gravel every 2km.

After 180km, at 2am, we set up camp down a bumpy path.  Still on track.

Day 2

At 8am we woke, not too tired but not completely awake either.  Kaleb has a stove so we made a strong espresso coffee each.  A quick pack-up and wave to the Turkmen farmers in the fields a few yards from our tents and we were on the road again.

We shouted our way through the city of Mary demanding directions without even stopping to say hello.  I was never able to have a proper conversation with a Turkmen person or engage at all with the culture.  I used the country purely as a means to an end and probably came across as someone too wrapped up in his own business to care about anyone else.

The wind blew in our favour and the road magically turned off the potholes.  Pastries filled with sheep fat and onions, green tea, a large bottle of Coke and a growing sense of optimism pushed us north-east faster than I could have possibly hoped.  We raced past donkey-drawn carts piled high with straw, more waving villagers and more potraits of the man.  The wind kept blowing and we kept following.  Comfort is relative so suddenly a smooth road and light to see by were luxury enough to keep us happy.  At the 100km mark we were still going strong, now well into the Turkmen desert with undulating sand dunes for as far as the eye can see.

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At 130km we stopped at a cafe for a proper meal.  The only dish on the menu was chicken thighs, salad and bread so that’s what we ate.  We stayed over an hour there resting, looking at the map and perhaps feeling a little too confident.  We should have made the most of the light but instead we lounged until the sun had disappeared behind the dunes.  The wind changed a bit and suddenly refused to help.  A police checkpoint almost forced us to stop because they considered the night too dangerous for cycling.  We refused politely but firmly over and over until they were bored and let us through.

There were no villages for the next 70km and we didn’t have enough water for the night so there was little choice but to grind on steadily through the dark.  The road wasn’t awful by any means but the odd pothole here and there meant we could only roll at 15km/h tops.  Our silver lining came in the best moon I have ever seen.  It started a dark red, rose upwards to orange, then to yellow and then to white.  Taking a break wasn’t bad either.  We lay in the sand dunes against the bikes and watched the sky.  Every kilometre cycled was one I wouldn’t have to do the next day.

The village Repetek turned out to be a single cafe but fortunately the owner gave me a blanket and let me sleep inside.  We had both been looking forward to an enormous meal of pasta cooked up on the stove but rather awkwardly we were presented with an omelette.  We wolfed it down but needed about ten times as much.  The owner didn’t like it when we tried to light the stove so we abandoned hope of filling ourselves up and collapsed into bed.  Kaleb decided he wouldn’t come with me the next morning.

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Day 3

I woke up three hours after I’d gone to sleep and through the window saw a canvas tarpaulin flapping in the wind in the right direction.  Without any hesitation and despite the fact it was still dark, I unlocked the restaurant door, hopped back on my bike (which I hadn’t unpacked at all – I slept in my cycling clothes), said a quick goodbye and thanks to Kaleb and pushed off into the desert.

For two hours I cycled hard without as much help from the wind as I had expected and with a very hungry stomach.  A cafe appeared on the side of the road but there was no guarantee it would be open as the sun had only just risen.  I couldn’t have cared less that I was chased through the parking area by a pack of dogs.  I squinted in through the cafe windows and saw a man beckoning me inside.  A breakfast of four eggs, sausage, bread and green tea fully consumed, I knew I had broken the back of the challenge.  Full of food and high on optimism I even managed a smile for the dogs as I weaved my way back onto the road.

I didn’t stop for the next 50km to Turkmenabat and only stopped for a few minutes in the city itself to fill up on more snacks and another bottle of Coke.  A kind lady gave me a big slice of cake when I explained how far I had cycled in the past 48 hours.  People pointed the way to the border with smiles that almost matched my own.  I had 40km to do and over 6 hours to do it.

Those final kilometres turned out tough because the road snaked all over the place putting me head on into the wind for some stretches.  It made me think how futile my efforts would have been if the wind had blown differently.  Through a police checkpoint, pointed down a road with no signposts or traffic and over a small hill I finally saw the beautiful sight of a line of trucks waiting to cross the border.  I stood happily amongst the chaos of the Turkmen exit post, knowing I now had time to waste.  I made it across Turkmenistan with 4 hours to spare having cycled 500km in 48 hours.

I could never have done it without my two friends along the way: Kaleb and the wind.  The race across Turkmenistan was a team effort.  The bad luck of receiving only a 3 day visa was compensated by the good luck of having such trusty companions.  I’m very grateful to both of them.

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11 Comments already on “Turkmenistan – A three day challenge”
  1. 12:28 pmpermalink
    09 Mar 2013

    Charles

    Bionic, Will. Fully as gripping as Argo. ie I’m not speaking to you, so you must have got through!

  2. 1:18 pmpermalink
    09 Mar 2013

    Marion

    Gosh! What fantastic grit and bravery and STAMINA! Very well done Will. Love Marion

  3. 3:08 pmpermalink
    09 Mar 2013

    Fran

    Well done, Will! Epic. Hope you can take things a bit easier for a while now. Bon voyage!
    Love Fran xx

  4. 1:37 pmpermalink
    10 Mar 2013

    Kirsi

    Wow, Will! Such an achievement, well done :) Hope you can relax and rest a bit now.

    And for us, a comfortable train will take us next Sunday to Cirencester :)

    Keep on going!

    Best,
    Kirsi & Antero

  5. 9:02 ampermalink
    11 Mar 2013

    andrew

    Hi Will
    amazing endurance. lots of love from us all

    A

  6. 11:51 ampermalink
    11 Mar 2013

    Sarah, Guy, Toby and Edward

    Wow Will you are amazing – definitely recommend several beers after that feat!

  7. 3:29 pmpermalink
    11 Mar 2013

    Gareth Shellard

    Wow Mr. Johnston! What an amazing race you had to beat your visa deadline. So glad to hear the wind co-operated and that you had some great company too! Couldn’t agree with you more that those two things are super important when you end up a little against it. Loving the blog as always, it must be almost a year since you set off now right? Everyone back here has so much respect for what you’re doing buddy, I’ve told countless people about your blog and there are now lots of people you’ve never even met following your every pedal stroke. Looking forward to your next post already. Take care buddy. Xxx

  8. 12:10 ampermalink
    15 Mar 2013

    Helen Hanstock

    Amazing, Will! I’ve been quietly following your blog since the beginning but decided it was about time to comment and show some support – the updates in the last couple of months from your travels since Turkey have offered some fascinating insights, so thank you so much for taking the time to update the world as you go.

    Hope you’ve had some time to chill since your 48 hour epic! All the best for the next stage of the journey xx

  9. 1:59 pmpermalink
    20 Mar 2013

    Luke

    Even Pa would be impressed by this story – he would have loved spending time in the dark with you too. Incredible endurance and stamina. The sight of Uzbekistan must have bought on sheer jubilation. Loving this mate, and cannot wait to come and join you soon

  10. 2:37 pmpermalink
    20 Mar 2013

    Nevin

    Another amazing story! I had such a vivid dream last night that we were all sitting on Grove after Finals, doesn’t that feel like ages ago?! What an incredible experience and huge congrats on hurtling through Turkmenistan – excited to hear what the next few months will bring. Love, Nevin

  11. 12:49 pmpermalink
    05 Apr 2013

    john

    Great blog Will. An exciting few days for you!